Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"The Queen of Versailles"

 4.5 / 5 

His wife is not within earshot when 74-year-old time-share mogul David Siegel is asked if his marriage gives him strength.  He thinks a long time about this, the unblinking camera watching, before he says, “No. Not really.”

What would his wife, Jackie, who’s 41 years younger, think?  At one time, the thought might have devastated her, but now, well, she has too much to do – after laying off most of the servants, it now falls mostly to Jackie Siegel and two nannies to look after the eight kids and take care of the 26,000-square-foot, 17-bathroom home they have on a private island in Florida.

There are dog feces on the floor.  Boxes of paperwork fill one room.  Clothes are strewn about, and fish and lizards are dead from neglect.  The place probably stinks.

It wasn’t always this way, and the makers of the dazzling documentary The Queen of Versailles had either the good sense or the good fortune to begin creating the film in mid-2008, when the time-share market was the only thing better than the real-estate market.

Though its title would purport it as a documentary solely about Jackie Siegel, and her odd combination of looks, intelligence, insecurity and obsessive collecting (money, antiques, shoes, animals, children) would have been enough for a pretty compelling film, The Queen of Versailles uses her as a starting point for a portrayal of life after the bubble burst that is alternately illuminating, insightful, provocative, shocking, humorous and maddening.  You may feel any number of emotions when The Queen of Versailles is over, but boredom assuredly will not be one of them.

As it opens, the Siegels are in the process of gleefully building what they tout as the largest single residence in the U.S., a 100,000-square-foot behemoth modeled (poorly) on Versailles.  Jackie takes a friend on a tour, promising, “This is where we’ll have the ice-skating-slash-roller rink,” and, “When I want to go visit the children, this is the staircase I’ll take.”

David, meanwhile, is opening his biggest time-share resort yet, the Planet Hollywood Towers in Las Vegas, where his adult son explains exactly how they talk people into buying one-week vacation homes they don’t need.  No one exactly says they’re preying on people, but if they had mustaches they’d be twirling them.  Still, everyone is getting rich, one way or another, and no one’s getting hurt.  Yet.

David even raves about how he and his money got George W. Bush elected – but he can’t talk about the re-election because he claims whatever he did may not have been legal.

The fascination of The Queen of Versailles is that everything was caught while it happened; it’s a present-tense documentary, so neither Jackie, David nor their employees have any idea what’s about to happen.  And when it does, everything comes crashing down, fast.

David patiently explains to the film crew exactly how and why his money disappeared, and he seems genuinely pained when he has to lay off hundreds of workers.  He has less concern about the welfare of his family, and as The Queen of Versailles progresses, Jackie insists she’d be happy living in a “$300,000, four-bedroom house” and being normal – but she can’t stop spending.

So, here’s a documentary about a reality many of us lived through as the appropriately named “Naughts” wound down: The investments we made went south, we had to tighten our belts, we wondered if we’d keep our jobs, and our relationships became strained.  This time, though, it’s one of the people who caused the situation who’s at the center of a film, and because it’s happening as we watch, he can’t explain it away.

The Queen of Versailles plays a nifty trick on the audience: For its first 45 minutes, this movie has you wishing it would all happen to you.  For its last 45, it has you remembering: Oh, yeah, it did.

Viewed 12/4/12 - Virgin-Atlantic VOD

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